Words by Monique Laban
Major in finance or accounting. Intern at Deloitte, KPMG, or PricewaterhouseCoopers. End up on Wall Street, maybe at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley if you’re lucky. Save up, even if you receive a six-figure holiday bonus. Expect six-figure holiday bonuses. Invest young and retire early. Then, and only then, can you do whatever you want.
That was The Plan my parents dictated to me. The least amount of school for the quickest and greatest potential earnings. Discarded options included engineering, since I hated physics; law school, since my parents found something morally repulsive about practicing law; and medical school, which they said was too expensive, despite my childhood dream of becoming a surgeon and saving lives.
“We’re not working this hard just for you to be in debt,” they told me constantly. This statement, tossed out tongue-in-cheek when I was a child, morphed into an indisputable command when I hit high school. “Once you go into business, you can contribute to whatever life-saving nonprofits you want.”
That was their refrain: after you get rich, you can help people. Get rich first, then you can have adventures and travel the world. Get rich first, then you can write. We are not working this hard and living this frugally for you to destroy The Plan.
My parents are immigrants from the Philippines who work in nursing homes as occupational therapists, and they employed the same cost-cutting strategies as all the other thrifty Asian American families in our Philadelphia suburb. Alongside tailors and doctors, we clustered at the sales sections at Kohl’s and Costco, clipped coupons with dedication, ordered tap water on the rare occasions we ate at restaurants, and always made time to read receipts and dispute erroneous charges. However, my parents distinguished themselves by the aggressive implementation of The Plan—while children around me were given some leeway to choose their professions as long as they were lucrative and secure, my parents had an implacable need to micromanage mine. They had no room for surprises.
Each time I tried to discuss the creative, community-focused future I wanted, my parents shrieked about how naive and ungrateful I was, and how many of their peers in the Philippines had failed in pursuing their vapid artistic dreams. Each time I asked what exactly being in business entailed, my parents listed off generic answers they found on Google and yelled at me for questioning their knowledge. I became too scared and tired of fighting them to consider other paths.
In response, I internalized The Plan into my own refrain: get rich first, then you can read books in peace without being scolded for not doing housework. Get rich first, then you can dress how you want instead of how your mother dresses you. Get rich first, then you can have your own car and gas money and no one will complain about being too tired to drive you to see your friends. Get rich first, then you can have friends. Get rich first, then you can live. Whenever I visited the nursing homes my parents worked at, I observed the elderly residents with a sort of hopeful desperation—surely, they had at least a good decade or so of retirement to enjoy their lives and return to their original passions, even if their age made that nearly impossible now. That would be enough for me, wouldn’t it?
If my adolescent dreams couldn’t withstand the test of time, how serious could they have been?
I respected frugality within the Asian American community around me when it meant valuing one’s work ethic and discipline. Exercised by my family, however, frugality was configured into a tool of resentment and control. It was made known to me that my existence was, at its core, a debt to my parents, and the only way for me to repay them was to stick to The Plan.
“Five thousand dollars for each of you,” my parents said over the phone on Christmas night of 2020. The pandemic had given me reason to not return home for the holidays, no matter how much they begged me to visit. I listened to my little brother and sister gasp while I waited wearily for the caveat.
“You can use it for anything, but we thought you’d like to invest it,” my parents directed at me. The mask of holiday cheer just barely covered their instructive tone. “We’ll give you financial advice on which investments to make.”
Their sleight of mind almost worked. I was used to them belittling my hobbies of pilates, illustration, and baking as wastes of time, and they insulted my writing enough to convince me that there was no future in it. Every Christmas, my parents complained about how difficult I was to shop for due to my apparent lack of interests, and I deluded myself into finding pride in this—that I could get rich faster if I denied myself any outlet for expression or fun. I was so convinced there would be time down the line to enjoy myself—it was money that always seemed scarce and uncertain.
A year of business school showed the contradictions of my parents’ expectations. As my dorm mates gushed about their majors, I sat through my required courses and hoped that maybe, the following week, I would like the subject more. Wasn’t the trick to this plan simply to work hard and wait? I convinced myself that negative feelings were meaningless, and made sure they were short-lived and easily buried before my parents could notice and scream about them.
To give into any impulse against The Plan felt like admitting my lack of self-control, that I would jeopardize the future freedom I wanted because I was weak.
And so, I ignored the nausea after every class, the panic attacks I’d have privately after congratulating my peers on their successes, and the migraines that came from a mix of eyestrain and tears.
While the semesters dragged on, I repeatedly wondered if I’d ever hit life’s ledger balance of zero and permit myself to work on my own happiness. And if so, would there ever be a point at which my future fulfillment would exceed my current misery? I grew frustrated by how clearly my parents envisioned a future where I was rich and validated their own hardships, but refused to see who I was beyond a reflection of their own success.
When I switched my major to English writing, my parents called me short-sighted for straying from The Plan, a refrain they repeated when I went into book publishing three years later. By the time they had given me five thousand dollars, they had only recently gotten out of the habit of delicately but frequently asking me why I wasn’t calling more, and when I planned to leave the publishing industry.
It wasn’t too late to find an entry-level position at a banking firm or tech startup. My publishing salary was the same starting salary as when they entered the job force 30 years ago. They just wanted what’s best for me, they reasoned. But hardened by a lifetime of feeling small and unfulfilled, I became immune to their rhetoric.
This “gift” of a $5,000 investment felt like a trap, on its surface a reconciliatory opportunity for me to admit my failure and disobedience, belying my parents’ play to regain control over my life. I had purposely made phone calls home short and kept visits rare, and the gift implied a return to regular exposure to their scrutiny and judgment. Even as I agreed to a discussion with them about their investment portfolio after the holidays, I knew I didn’t want to waste any more time fretting over the future when I could enjoy myself now.
Three weeks later, I used their gift to pay for the LASIK surgery I’d wanted since I was a teen, but didn’t tell them until a month after I had the procedure done. I didn’t want them chiding me for being impulsive with such a large sum of money, nor did I want to risk complications or insults or further stress as I recovered. At the root of it, however, I didn’t care about what they had to say about any of this—as well-intentioned as they may have been, I could only see a sum this large as a bribe.
“This was my investment,” I said over FaceTime. I watched their faces phase from shock to confusion to resignation when they finally offered hollow praise. I explained the everyday inconveniences of not seeing my own face unless I was an inch away from a mirror. Glasses were cumbersome during rain or snow or a pandemic that guaranteed constant fogging from face masks. The difference between my poor vision and glasses had contributed to the migraines I was told to ignore as a child and worsened with age.
My parents nodded—their daughter had changed from someone stuck in their ideal future to someone who had existed in front of them, in the present, all along. The last few times they contacted me, they framed their questions to ask how I was currently doing, never again what my plans five, 10, 20 years down the line were. I’ve since stopped answering them altogether. Despite this change in their behavior, a lifetime of their distrust and invasive probing was too difficult for me to forgive.
In the same way that I improved my life with LASIK, I realized that I needed to protect my mental health and continue to improve my life by leaving them behind.
Even without my parents in my life anymore, I continued to find it difficult to stop depriving myself. Despite being accepted into various writing workshops, I was scared of having too much fun or spending too much money on something that I had been told was too unstable a passion to follow. When I enrolled in a beginners’ ballet class soon after the surgery, I felt guilty over what I had inwardly seen as a nonsensical purchase—what use was a skill that I couldn’t turn into a hustle?
“You had fun,” my partner said after a class in which I joked about how I fell over from attempting a pas de bourrée improperly. “It must be easier to do that now without glasses.”
The shame dissipated and I smiled at the acknowledgement that “fun” was enough.
My LASIK surgery, on both a physical and emotional level, was the first step in allowing me to see my life as it is rather than what it ought to be by someone else’s standards.
I have since dropped my refrain entirely and carve out an hour to read before bed most nights, understanding that rest is just as important as work. I still buy clothes on sale, but they’re in styles I enjoy rather than the doll-like fashions my mother shopped for. I realize I don’t have to be rich to hang out with friends. I indulge myself with hobbies and interests and make them part of who I am, no longer thinking of what enjoyment I will have as a wealthy retiree. Here is the life I wanted all along: free for me to enjoy, debt-free.
Published on September 28, 2022
Words by Monique Laban
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.